NB - Post from October 2010 - scroll down for much more recent stuff.
Earlier this year I read and greatly enjoyed Jaron Lanier's enigmatic You are not a gadget - a manifesto. , which gets to the heart of why I sometimes feel uncomfortable about the way the Web is going, and which challenges ideas that I hold dear about it (in particularly in relation to open content). Lanier himself puts it this way "The book is centered on the philosophy of consciousness, the nature of science in the proximity of big computation, recent musical culture, and other topics that all connect to the nature of network-age personhood. I think the book is actually about what might best be called "spirituality". See also this February 2010 interview with the Observer's Aleks Krotoski.
Just now, while writing a comment on Clive Shepherd's post about Nicholas Carr's interesting but annoying "The Shallows", I came across Does the digital classroom enfeeble the mind? a recent New York Times piece by Lanier.
To put Lanier's striking question in context here is an excerpt from the NYT piece, though the former is no substitute for Lanier's "You are not gadget", which anyone striving to be ambidextrous in the matter of technology and education should make a point of reading.
A career in computer science makes you see the world in its terms. You start to see money as a form of information display instead of as a store of value. Money flows are the computational output of a lot of people planning, promising, evaluating, hedging and scheming, and those behaviours start to look like a set of algorithms. You start to see the weather as a computer processing bits tweaked by the sun, and gravity as a cosmic calculation that keeps events in time and space consistent.
This way of seeing is becoming ever more common as people have experiences with computers. While it has its glorious moments, the computational perspective can at times be uniquely unromantic.
Nothing kills music for me as much as having some algorithm calculate what music I will want to hear. That seems to miss the whole point. Inventing your musical taste is the point, isn’t it? Bringing computers into the middle of that is like paying someone to program a robot to have sex on your behalf so you don’t have to.
And yet it seems we benefit from shining an objectifying digital light to disinfect our funky, lying selves once in a while. It’s heartless to have music chosen by digital algorithms. But at least there are fewer people held hostage to the tastes of bad radio D.J.’s than there once were. The trick is being ambidextrous, holding one hand to the heart while counting on the digits of the other.
How can you be ambidextrous in the matter of technology and education? Education — in the broadest sense — does what genes can’t do. It forever filters and bequeaths memories, ideas, identities, cultures and technologies. Humans compute and transfer non-genetic information between generations, creating a longitudinal intelligence that is unlike anything else on Earth. The data links that hold the structure together in time swell rhythmically to the frequency of human regeneration. This is education.
Now we have information machines. The future of education in the digital age will be determined by our judgement of which aspects of the information we pass between generations can be represented in computers at all. If we try to represent something digitally when we actually can’t, we kill the romance and make some aspect of the human condition newly bland and absurd. If we romanticize information that shouldn’t be shielded from harsh calculations, we’ll suffer bad teachers and D.J.’s and their wares.